Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

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